User Research & Interface Design of Hospital Supply Management

Perot Time0 and Owens & Minor were co-developing a web-based hospital purchasing system. During the requirements phase of the project they selected Kay to do the user research and UI design for the product. The team used Kay’s designs to communicate the requirements to development. Additionally, they used her work to garner the interest of other potential investors and partners. Her method of documenting interfaces was clear and unambiguous, and worked effectively with the geographically dispersed project team.

Time 0 engineering needed a detailed understanding of how hospitals handle the purchasing function. Kay arranged site visits and telephone interviews with purchasing staff in over a dozen hospitals in the US. The facilities she surveyed ranged from a small community hospital in the Midwest to a huge hospital system in New York City. During site visits Kay observed and interviewed staff at all levels who dealt with the hospital supply chain: directors of purchasing, purchasing agents, nurses, staff responsible for stocking supply closets. After each visit, Kay communicated the information she gathered through visually-oriented reports containing user profiles, organizational, workflow and task analysis.

Through this direct contact with the target audience, Kay was able to provide the engineers with highly relevant information, which shaped the system requirements and design. When the research portion of the project was complete, Kay designed the user interface and project managed the graphic design and technical writing staff. The resulting system encompassed catalog creation, content management, searching, browsing, order placement, order management, tracking, and system administration. Throughout design, she met continuously with project sponsors and engineers for feedback and requirements updates.

Through her site visits, Kay learned that each hospital had its own way of handling materials management. All used a home-grown system. Kay also noticed themes as she did her observations. For example, many hospital workers can’t touch type, which has profound implications for designing an order entry system. She learned that staff who handle purchasing and stocking tend to stay at their jobs for many years. These people have an encyclopedic knowledge of hospital supplies, vendors, and physician preferences. They rely on their private knowledge. When faced with having to place an emergency order for a particular item, purchasing agents will bypass the system and call known suppliers directly. This is because even in large hospitals, online product catalogs were often unusable, because the content is disorganized and not managed.

Kay also learned that within large hospitals, purchasing is de-centralized, and typically divided into routine and reactive ordering. For routine items such as latex gloves, contract prices for goods are arranged in advance with a preferred vendor. Still, hospital systems do not know how much they spend on particular categories of product. They pay their suppliers for this data at the end of the year. Hospital administrators cannot accurately predict how much to allocate for non-routine supplies, because they do not know the number of accidents, surgeries, etc they will perform next year. Hospitals end up paying a lot more for emergency supplies. When a hospital needs a non-standard item for an emergency operation, they need it now, and are forced to pay top dollar and for immediate shipment.

Once the initial design was complete, Kay assisted a usability engineer in usability testing paper and electronic prototypes of the user interface. The tests turned up several problems. After testing, Kay redesigned the troublesome areas and worked with the engineering leads to schedule the coding updates